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Science fiction novels for economists
May 15, 2013 12:50 PM   Subscribe

Science fiction novels for economists [via Paul Krugman]
posted by brundlefly (53 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
First Contract by Greg Kostikyan.

(Aliens arrive. Market crash ensues.)
posted by ocschwar at 1:01 PM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hey, Krugman has the Doctorow dislike too..
posted by k5.user at 1:01 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Arg, his reading comprehension is very very weak:

> What's interesting is that although anarcho-syndicalism doesn't work incredibly well on the world where it's implemented, the anarcho-syndicalist idea and movement serve as a sort of permanent opposition force on the capitalist world.

Actually, if he'd Read the Famous Book a little more carefully, he might have understood what is going on.

The reason he perceives that "anarcho-syndicalism doesn't work incredibly well on the world where it's implemented", named Anarres, is in fact that world is extremely poor in natural wealth and has a very poor climate for growth.

This is constantly pointed out in the book - that Anarres is a very resource-poor planet where political enemies of the state were exiled from the rich mother planet, Urras.

And it's extremely hard for everyone there. The main protagonist is working on a major theory - but he is interrupted for (I think) two years because there is a global famine (which happens quite often) and everyone - everyone! - goes off to work on the farms.

And you see corruption - but it gets fixed. And his work is unjustifiably ignored - but he persists, and he is still somewhat supported by society even though they don't believe his ideas, and he eventually triumphs.

Anarres seems very dull and boring compared to the exciting motherworld, but as you go on you realize that these people actually try to be honest, and fair, and they are simply a better culture than the other one, Urras, even though Urras is much richer.

There's a scene at the end where you realize that the working people of Urras think of Anarres as some sort of heaven, even though they know full well that everyone's poor, simply because everyone is treated evenly. It made me cry the first time I read the book.

I stopped there, maybe he improved after that.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:04 PM on May 15, 2013 [12 favorites]


OK, now I've seen the rest of his choices I think this is teh bogus.

Lucifer's Hammer is an exciting book - but it is not about economics, I don't remember even one minute about economics. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress talks a tiny bit about economics - but it is a book about how to organize a populist rebellion. One of the Vinge books talks a certain amount about economics - the other one doesn't mention it at all. And I don't remember economics playing much part in Game of Thrones, though I confess I read the first few books and they all blurred together in my mind.

(Niven and Pournelle started off very well as a writing team, with books like Inferno and Lucifer's Hammer, but boy did they fall off a cliff after that...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:09 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Reamde doesn't foreshadow bitcoin, it investigates gold farming. Which was a thing before the novels creation.

Cryptonomicon is the book that introduces ideas that don't already exist in the real world. Data centres etc.
posted by Keith Talent at 1:10 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


(I just can’t read Cory Doctorow, and don’t know why).

This is our chance to school a Nobel (Memorial) Prize Winner, folks!
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:16 PM on May 15, 2013


What about Horror Stories for Economists?

"This is the tale of a shopper who was not a rational actor...WhOOAOOoOOOooOOoOOO!"
"That...that's impossible!"
"It was a cold, dark night at the grocery store when the shoppper reeeeeached for the shelves and selected a product...WooooOoooOOooOOoooOOo!"
"Tell me she at least logically weighed the utility value of it!"
"Oh noooooo, this tale is far too terrifying, she selected it because...the label was well-designed."
"THAT CAN'T BE! THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE!"
"And that shopper...WAS ME!"
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:20 PM on May 15, 2013 [38 favorites]


Bonus mouseover text on the image at the top of the article. I know the same thought crossed my mind when I saw that trailer.
posted by radwolf76 at 1:26 PM on May 15, 2013


First Contract by Greg Kostikyan.

God, yes. Any list of SF books for economists which excludes First Contract is a bunk list.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:26 PM on May 15, 2013


I recently finished another Vinge book (A Fire Upon the Deep) and thought it was fantastic. Galactic USENET, computer viruses raised from ancient data archives, and even intelligent dog packs vying for control of a medieval world. Wow. It was such a great ride.
posted by tarpin at 1:31 PM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wait. Economics is science fiction, right?
posted by Splunge at 1:41 PM on May 15, 2013 [14 favorites]


forget plastics...pizza delivery.
posted by j_curiouser at 1:43 PM on May 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling.

His best, most prescient, book, with plenty of near-future economics. Actually, IITN was so prescient when it was written in 1988 that much of it has already come true.
posted by Edgewise at 1:43 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Niven and Pournelle started off very well as a writing team, with books like Inferno and Lucifer's Hammer, but boy did they fall off a cliff after that...

I'd say those are already a cliff-fall's distance from The Mote in God's Eye.
posted by Zed at 1:46 PM on May 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Cryptonomicon is the book that introduces ideas that don't already exist in the real world. Data centres etc.

Oh no, data centers existed when Cryptonomicon was written. I read it in the summer of 1999, when I was working for a company that had a datacenter which had been around for a few years.

I would add in Bank's Player of Games as another one.
posted by lyra4 at 1:48 PM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


The best tribute to Banks that we can make is to become a post-scarcity utopia like the Culture. I think it's in The State of the Art where he wrote that "Money implies poverty."
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 1:50 PM on May 15, 2013 [12 favorites]


Wait. Economics is science fiction, right?

No, Economics is fantasy.
posted by Omon Ra at 1:52 PM on May 15, 2013 [11 favorites]


Of all the books that Neal Stephenson wrote, he picks Reamde?! I'll grant that it has some interesting chapters, but overall it was a terrible disappointment. Surely Cryptonomicon or The Diamond Age would be more relevant; even Anathem would have been better.

Also, surely A Fire Upon The Deep than A Deepness in the Sky is more interesting when you consider the economics of information, AIs, posthumans, etc? Bizarre choices of novels.
posted by adrianhon at 1:54 PM on May 15, 2013


Lucifer's Hammer is the one with the giant horde of Black cannibals coming for our rigidly rational and very whitebread science heroes. Even if the economics is good, would you want anybody sane to read it?
posted by MartinWisse at 2:02 PM on May 15, 2013


He uses an image from Gunnm but it's not in the list. Weird, it would be appropriate.
posted by mkb at 2:04 PM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Windup-Girl is godawful as well in the ways it fails basic science and logic (let's all ignore wind and solar energy and use genetically mutated elephants and giant springs for our energy needs), not to mention a rapey plot and geisha fantasies.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:05 PM on May 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


If Metafilter did nothing but recommend SF reads, I'd have my $5 worth.
posted by Vhanudux at 2:15 PM on May 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


I now think of The Player Of Games as The Dispossessed's younger sibling. The structure and culture-clashes are remarkably similar.

Odonian society, despite being anything but post-scarcity, even has Culture-like aphorisms such as "to make a thief make an owner" and a perfectly designed, bias-free language they all speak.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 2:23 PM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I expected this list to be about the many, many with books with bad fictional economics like say The Hunger Games where simply killing all the coal miners doesn't really solve the problem if there's only one source of coal for the entire world.
posted by GuyZero at 2:27 PM on May 15, 2013


Splunge: "Wait. Economics is science fiction, right?"

Well, this paper might be.
posted by pwnguin at 2:52 PM on May 15, 2013


Really, most science fiction is about economics. What makes most future visions interesting is not just the technical particulars of the cool new Stuff, but the social ramifications.

No, no it's not. That completely ignores Space Operas, and Military Science fiction (not that the two are mutually exclusive) which focus quite a bit on cool new gadget and not so much on this changes humanity. More importantly, social ramifications can mean a huge variety of things.

Filtering everything through the lens of his particular interest is a great way to miss out on a good bit of the discussion of the human condition that goes on in the story telling. I mean, how do you read Tiptree or Lem and think about economics? If you say that Banks is merely pontificating about an anti-capitalist utopia in the Culture novels, or LeGuin's Hanish cycle is exploring different economic systems you're missing what makes them powerful and thought provoking. Heck, even Blish's Cities in Flight is as much about aging and stagnation as it is about the economics.

So no, Science fiction is no more about economics than any other form of story telling is.
posted by Gygesringtone at 3:21 PM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Echoing fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit: "Money implies Poverty" is the single most Sci-Fi statement on economics I've ever read.
posted by Freen at 3:28 PM on May 15, 2013


I'll just leave this here, since Krugman is quite interested in a lot of themes from sci-fi
Paul Krugman/Charles Stross.

I love intelligent and informed discussions. I wish I could sit in a room with these 2 for a few days and just TALK ABOUT EVERYTHING.
posted by daq at 3:35 PM on May 15, 2013


"So in order to obviate this problem," he continued, "and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and...er, burn down all the forests. I think you'll all agree that's a sensible move under the circumstances.”
― Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
posted by piyushnz at 3:36 PM on May 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


Omon Ra: "Wait. Economics is science fiction, right?

No, Economics is fantasy.
"

Granted. More like a combination of voodoo and cargo cult.
posted by Splunge at 3:41 PM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


daq, your link is broken.
posted by brundlefly at 3:42 PM on May 15, 2013


Since we're apparently making our own counter-list here, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy gives a hefty chunk of itself to discussing economics both in the new Martian society and (in the second and third books, at least) on the warming, collapsing, overpopulated Earth as well.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:49 PM on May 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'd also disagree with those saying Reamde isn't a good choice for this list. Yeah, Stephenson has other books that spend time on economics (most notably Cryptonomicon and the Baroque sequels), but Reamde does a lot of poking around in the more interesting spaces of present economy: how exactly mobsters make their money (as one character explains, doing very boring spreadsheet stuff with hacked credit card numbers, rather than burying bodies in the Baltic), life in developing economies, etc., as well as online economies and how those two interact in strange and startling ways - that last is pretty much the driving theme of the plot until it gets taken over by post-9/11 terrorist boilerplate.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:53 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't care about your criticisms, he loved Deepness which is one of the greatest SF novels ever written, provided you've read Fire first.
posted by Justinian at 3:53 PM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


If Noah Smith thinks that Schismatrix Plus doesn't make any sense, perhaps he should try another of Sterling's works. Maneki Neko has been on MetaFilter before, but it's one of my favorite works by Sterling and high on my "why can't we have this nice thing" wishlist.

"Maybe my economy is better than your economy."
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 4:24 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


lupus_yonderboy: "Anarres seems very dull and boring compared to the exciting motherworld, but as you go on you realize that these people actually try to be honest, and fair, and they are simply a better culture than the other one, Urras, even though Urras is much richer."

Part of what made The Dispossessed resonate with me was that the utopian society was clearly flawed, but still possibly an improvement. A lot of SF presents a radically transformed society as obvious, necessary, and perfect--or at least, perfect except for the Bad, Bad Counter-Revolutionary People. (See everything from most of Heinlein to Star Trek to Foundation.) Maybe it works for some people, but it just makes me wonder who lobotomized all the characters.

In Le Guin's utopia--if that's what it is--politics still gets in the way of truth, reasonable people still face hardship, unfairness still exists. Hey, these characters could be real! Maybe we could make a world like theirs?
posted by vasi at 5:18 PM on May 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Unusually for Metafilter, there's not a lot of mention of Pratchett's Making Money, together with Going Postal and his work generally ("the 'Boots' theory of socio-economic unfairness"). I guess that's because he doesn't present a vision of the way people could live, just one of the way that people do live, even if the people are dwarves and trolls and witches and Igors.

I love LeGuin, particularly Always Coming Home, but I could not accept the premise of life in Anarres. I said to myself: people will sell each other shit! Even apes will sell each other shit!* It was many years ago that I read this, though, so maybe I could give it another try.

-----
* This is true, although it is maybe not as significant as I thought at the time.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:30 PM on May 15, 2013


Cory Doctorow is not "the creator of the blog Boing Boing." That idea is science fiction.
posted by larrybob at 5:37 PM on May 15, 2013


I love LeGuin, particularly Always Coming Home, but I could not accept the premise of life in Anarres. I said to myself: people will sell each other shit! Even apes will sell each other shit!* It was many years ago that I read this, though, so maybe I could give it another try.

People do sell each other shit on Anarres, though! In a way, that's the big reveal over the course of those chapters.

I mean, they're not using currency, because that's taboo there. And they're not selling physical goods for the most part, because they've set up a situation where basic goods are free and luxury goods essentially can't exist. But there's a thriving black market in exchanging services and favors and positions of influence, and you see the full range of eeeeeeeeeevil propertarian behaviors that good Odonians are supposed to avoid — hoarding and coveting and speculation and profiteering and so on — played out in that arena.

You realize by the end of the book that, okay, they created a world where it was taboo to own or trade tangible stuff — but that just meant they ended up with an economy where most of the stuff being traded was intangible.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 7:00 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I both liked and was immensely irritated by Accelerando. I liked it because it was very well written and had some neat ideas. It frustrated me because the book had some quite glaring contradictions and assumptions, particularly around taxes and laws, that I don't think it ever bothered to explain.

A United States of America that has gotten religion about collecting taxes is not a place that allows corporations to create and register themselves procedurally in order to obfuscate the ownership of assets. The IRS has globetrotting dominatrix cyber-audtiors and not a General Anti-Avoidance Rule?

Even if some foreign jurisdiction gives you a corporate registry API, anyone's laws only reach as far as people willing to enforce them. I never got why everyone's laws suddenly were seemingly binding on everyone else in Acellerando. Particularly in the early to middle bits of the book, why would the Islamic jurisprudence of Yemen now be binding on a mining colony orbiting Jupiter. Who exactly was going to enforce this judgment and how?

It may be my own failing of the imagination but these sorts of questions about how and why things worked the way they did really bugged me while I was reading the book.
posted by Grimgrin at 7:40 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]



Cryptonomicon is the book that introduces ideas that don't already exist in the real world. Data centres etc.
posted by Keith Talent at 1:10 PM on May 15 [1 favorite +] [!]


What? I received an Amazon delivery of Cryptonomicon in 1999 while I was working at a datacenter, and I can assure you that such facilities most definitely existed 14 years ago...
posted by thewalrus at 9:48 PM on May 15, 2013


Very pleasantly surprised to see Schismatrix Plus on the list, even if Smith's write-up doesn't begin to capture what's so wonderful about the book (which includes a fantastic novella and short stories set in a brilliant this-solar-system setting, has some of Sterling's most inventive ideas, and has as its worst flaw being too short for Sterling to fully explore every last one of those ideas).

The Windup-Girl is godawful as well in the ways it fails basic science and logic (let's all ignore wind and solar energy and use genetically mutated elephants and giant springs for our energy needs)

Yeah, while I mostly found The Windup Girl interesting despite the horrific geisha rape elements, it's difficult to imagine a smart economist *not* cringing at the complete avoidance of any discussion of why solar/wind/etc wasn't a significant part of the book's milieu. Same goes for The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which offers a childishly simplistic (and yawningly didactic) presentation of libertarian economics that would bore any thoughtful economist to tears.

Vernor Vinge just moved a few spots up the to-read list, though.
posted by mediareport at 10:31 PM on May 15, 2013


Very pleasantly surprised to see Schismatrix Plus on the list

This. Somewhat overlooked at original publication, in the wake of Neuromancer but a huge influence on people like e.g. Charlie Stross.

Vernor Vinge just moved a few spots up the to-read list, though.

Be careful. Vinge is very much of the libertarian persuasion himself, though less ranty and smarter about it than Heinlein and it does come through in his works.

A Fire on the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky are his best works. You need to read them in that order to get the most out of them, though they are standalone novels and it is possible to read them the other way around as well.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:59 AM on May 16, 2013


Sure, it's possible. But don't.
posted by Justinian at 1:59 AM on May 16, 2013


Is Spice & Wolf on this list? No? Go away, lazy blogger, you have nothing new to say to me.
posted by nicebookrack at 3:35 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


And yes, Countess Elena, no mention of Making Money & Going Postal?!
posted by nicebookrack at 3:51 AM on May 16, 2013


I just dont like the sentient dog packs. I'm a bad nerd.
posted by shothotbot at 9:15 AM on May 16, 2013


Echoing what others have said: The Dispossessed is excellent because it's plausible.

Thomas More wrote Utopia at least in part as a satire of reform efforts (he was, after all, the member of a royal court). It's perfection was supposed to be discrediting of anything vaugely like it.

Le Guin, drawing on the golden age of Spanish Anarchism, describes a society populated with people recognizably like ourselves, encountering real problems. The thing is, their problems are better problems than those we're faced with today.
posted by phrontist at 11:35 AM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I like to say that Accelerando is about what would happen if we eliminated the need for capitalism but not capitalism also.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:43 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Odonian society, despite being anything but post-scarcity, even has Culture-like aphorisms such as "to make a thief make an owner" and a perfectly designed, bias-free language they all speak.

I think one of the big points of The Dispossessed was that they had done themselves an immense disservice by trying not to talk about power. That played a role in not being able to recognize the power structures that had crept in. What Shevek realized was that anarchism couldn't be static; it had to be a continuing process.

It's no coincidence that Shevek's physics was all about unifying perceived immiscible opposites -- The Dispossessed is Taoism all the way down.

I also think Le Guin hedged her bets by making Anarres such a severe environment. On Anarres, it was evident that they had to work together or they'd all die. If there were seemingly plenty for everyone, it would be a lot harder to maintain the value that ownership was anti-social.
posted by Zed at 9:53 AM on May 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


On Anarres, it was evident that they had to work together or they'd all die. If there were seemingly plenty for everyone, it would be a lot harder to maintain the value that ownership was anti-social.

So what's our excuse on earth? It's not like individualism is a real thing in the real world.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:06 PM on May 17, 2013


It's been a long time since I read A Deepness in the Sky, but I thought it was partially about how a fascist takeover happens. And how difficult it is to fight against a fascist regime once it gains control.
posted by AnnElk at 4:59 PM on May 19, 2013


nicebookrack: "Is Spice & Wolf on this list? No? Go away, lazy blogger, you have nothing new to say to me."

I get the impression Spice & Wolf is something that isn't new to you either?
posted by pwnguin at 10:00 PM on May 19, 2013


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